By J.E. McCollough Entering the private sector after military service is rarely...
I Was Wrong: A Tribute to Veterans
Like many other kids, I was heavily influenced by the movies and television shows I saw. At five years old, my dad took me to see the original Star Wars in the theater and it nearly made my head explode. Shortly thereafter he took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark and for the next year or so I ran around with a rope that doubled as a whip, jumping across cavernous holes (read: from the couch to the recliner), and pretending to recover historical relics.
However, despite the large role these two film series played in my childhood, the idea of “playing Army” was a mainstay in most of my youthful fantasies. I was constantly shooting at the enemies of my country in whatever scenario I could conjure up out of my little head. Even when I dreamed of being in a Star Wars or Indiana Jones-type world, for some unexplained reason I would incorporate militaristic themes to whatever storyline came from my imagination. I may have had a light saber, but I was a commando with a light saber—not that wussy Luke Skywalker. If I was finding the Ark of the Covenant, I did so with a Tommy Gun in my hand because, let’s face it, that seemed like a more practical weapon than a bullwhip.
I distinctly remember when the movie The Green Berets with John Wayne came on one Sunday afternoon (this is before cable TV, by the way, so TBS wasn’t around to show stuff like that once a month—this was a big deal). I was jumping up and down with excitement and literally could not believe that they had made a movie about the toughest, coolest, and most highly-trained killers on the planet. When other kids went to the elementary school library to check out books on The Brady Bunch, I was looking up stuff on long range patrols in Vietnam. I knew what Green Berets were and I was pumped to be able to see a whole movie on them.
Around the same time that one of our 4 channels was gracious enough to set my hair on fire with a John Wayne movie about Special Forces, one of the major networks decided to start airing this little gem of a television series called The A-Team. I became quickly aware that, even as wanted criminals, Green Berets could wreak havoc on bad guys and save people from criminal masterminds, tyranny, and all around evil. I believed there was nothing they could not do and, whether it was running around in the woods behind our house or playing with GI Joe figures, my fantasies of super soldiers played out for a very long time—probably much longer than they should have for a healthy mind, to be quite honest.
Though I thought often of joining the military during my teenage years, when I graduated high school in 1992, it was far from the closest thing to my mind. I wanted to be “free.” I wanted to just go and do…whatever. And so I did. But the military option nagged at me for a long time; the fantasies of my youth still had a part to play in the back of my mind, but the lack of major international conflict probably prevented them from persuading me into any substantial decision about military service.
September 11, 2001 changed all of that, and it forced me to confront those boyhood dreams of being a super soldier. It forced me to fully address the question of whether or not I did, in fact, have what it would take to be one of the elite our country trusts with its most dangerous missions. So it was that I joined the United States Army shortly thereafter the events of that day.
Despite the fantasies of my youth maturing as I had, I still carried many of them with me. I envisioned being part of the most elite units and having access to the latest and greatest gear. My country would assuredly ask me to conduct high-risk operations behind enemy lines with only a few of my fellow commandos; I would be trained by the best to be the best; I would learn to sneak silently into enemy camps and bring to justice the likes of Osama bin Laden and those similar. The martial arts I had learned as a civilian would pale in comparison to the tactics I would certainly be taught by the US Army.
I was wrong.
Most of those fantasies were, of course, crushed by Infantry OSUT at the little place known as Ft. Benning. My vision of what I would learn quickly turned into a giant boot-polishing marathon and how to dress-right-dress. The hopes of learning secret commando techniques vanished while standing around in formation waiting for…anything. And everything. For very, very long periods of time. Going on to Airborne School showed me again how wrong I was in my thinking that “fighting soldiers, from the sky” was really just a euphemism for running at excruciatingly slow paces and falling down in rocks over and over…and over…and over.
The Ranger Indoctrination Program further magnified my wrongness but in a completely different manner. They took aggression to a whole new level. My daydreams of sneaking through jungles disappeared with SFC C. yelling at us that “Rangers don’t sneak anywhere; they’re as quiet as a herd of elephants and, when they get where they’re going, things get burned down.” Statements like these were of course shouted at us while being in the front-leaning rest position for what seemed like several days at Cole Range.
I was wrong about what it took to be an elite warrior. Very, very wrong.
And I couldn’t be happier about it.
See, I have learned something in the eleven years since joining the Army. Rapidly approaching 40-years old, I can look back with alarming clarity and say that the camaraderie and brotherhood shared by members of the armed forces does not come from fantasy; the bonds shared by those who volunteer to serve in the military do not foster and grow from what little boys dream about in their back yards. Those bonds grow through cold, hard, reality.
It is by the suffering through stupidity; the enduring of silliness; the submitting to endless, bureaucratic, sink holes of time-wasting events that we can understand not only the current struggles of those who serve, but the trials of them who came before us, as well. The fantasy land of Hollywood serves only to entertain; there is no bonding mechanism in place that a movie can accurately portray because 99% of Americans wouldn’t pay the money to see one that truly depicted what really goes on. The truth of what makes the military special isn’t represented by rockets and rock music—Michael Bay movies can’t begin to capture the nature of what every veteran knows.
It’s about grit. It’s about honor. It’s about doing the right thing and doing it when the right thing is one of the least fun options that can be imagined, and it’s about doing that very thing with a head held high. It is, in short, about embracing the suck.
I see that now. I see that I was wrong and it makes me proud. I never attained my goal of super-elite secret soldier, but that matters not because what I have done is not fantasy. It is part of the brotherhood that is the United States military—a group of individuals that understands sacrifice, camaraderie, and enduring “the suck” like no other. It is for that reason that the reality is far more beneficial than the fantasy because I can embrace it as the here and now. I can look other veterans in the eye and thank them for what they’ve done and they can know that it isn’t hollow gratitude—it is an appreciation that comes from an understanding of the truth that most will never know.
So it is with great honor and humility that I extend my thanks to you on Veteran’s Day for what you have done. I would like to say openly and honestly that I could not be more proud to have been wrong about what this service was and is all about. I am honored to have had my fantasies crushed in the best possible way and to be a part of you, the .45%.
Thank you for serving.